Chemours plans to expand its Fayetteville Works site, but hasn’t cleaned up existing contamination

By: - September 22, 2022 1:19 pm
An aerial view of the Chemours plant

An aerial view of the Chemours Fayetteville Works plant in northern Bladen County. (Photo: Chemours)

An aerial view of the Chemours plant (Photo: Chemours)

Chemours – the billion-dollar company responsible for contaminating the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people in the Lower Cape Fear River Basin, the company that is challenging the EPA’s scientific findings that GenX is toxic, the company that after 28 months has yet to submit a revised corrective action plan to clean up polluted groundwater beneath at least seven square miles around its Fayetteville Works plant, the company that recently was fined $305,000 for environmental violations by the state of North Carolina – plans to expand.

Chemours wants to increase its production of a molecular building block for PFA, a type of fluoropolymer, at Fayetteville Works in northern Bladen County, near the Cumberland County line. This building block is also known as a monomer.

PFA stands for perfluoroalkoxy alkanes. They belong to the PFAS family but have a slightly different molecular structure. The chemical industry has claimed that PFA, the fluoropolymer, is a “polymer of low concern.”

However, a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Science & Technology casts doubt on that assertion. Jamie DeWitt, a professor of pharmacology & toxicology at East Carolina University, and an expert on PFAS, is among the paper’s authors. 

They concluded that based on their review of the evidence, there is not a “scientific rationale” for concluding that fluoropolymers like PFA are of low concern for environmental and human health. 

Mike Watters lives in the Gray’s Creek neighborhood near the Fayetteville Works plant. His drinking water and vegetable garden have been contaminated with GenX and other PFAS. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

Like PFAS, fluoropolymers are “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down in the environment. The manufacture of fluoropolymers  also can create toxic PFAS as byproducts. “Their extreme persistence and the emissions associated with their production, use, and disposal result in a high likelihood for human exposure as long as uses are not restricted,” the authors wrote, adding, “Their production and uses should be curtailed” except when essential.

None of these caveats was discussed at public meetings hosted by Chemours this week.

Instead, attendees were herded by Chemours employees into a room laid out with booths, TV screens and colorful posters, like a science fair.

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PFA versus PFAS

There is an important distinction between PFA and PFAS, although each poses environmental and public health risks.

PFA stands for perfluoroalkoxy alkanes. They have a slightly different molecular structure than other compounds within the PFAS family.

Heat-resistant and durable, they are used in the semiconductor, transportation and medical equipment industries. Seth Bailey, a manufacturing technology manager at Chemours’s Advanced Performance Materials section, said the company’s Fayetteville Works plant is “the only supplier of these raw materials to make these products, to enable things that we depend on every day.”

PFAS is short for perfluorinated compounds, of which there are at least 10,000 types.

All PFAS, including GenX, that independent scientists have studied so far have been found to be toxic to human health and the environment. They’ve been linked to thyroid disorders, kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, a depressed immune system, low birth weight and reproductive problems. Scientists have also found GenX exposure can impair liver function.

When PFA is manufactured, the process can generate PFAS as byproduct.

These meetings — one in Dublin, in Bladen County, and another in Leland, in Brunswick County — were not voluntary for Chemours, but rather were stipulated to in a consent order between the company, the NC Department of Environmental Quality and Cape Fear River Watch. 

“They’re holding these meetings because they’re required to,” said Dana Sargent, executive director of Cape Fear River Watch. “Not because they’re good neighbors.”

At the meeting, company brochures and posters boasted that it had reduced the amount of PFAS discharge to the Cape Fear River by 97% and air emissions by more than 99%. However, these improvements were not voluntary. They were also imposed as a condition of the consent order. 

Amber Wellman, sustainability director for Advanced Performance Materials at Chemours (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

(To help comply with the discharge requirement, the company recently received a state permit for a groundwater treatment system. It is part of a larger project to keep compounds out of the river: 70 extraction wells and a one-mile long barrier wall buried six stories underground.)

As for its air emissions, Chemours emphasized that there would be no new toxics, nor an “overall increase” as a result of the plant expansion. However, that could mean larger amounts of some compounds will be emitted, but offset by smaller amounts of others. 

The company is legally required as part of the consent order to emit less than 23.7 pounds of GenX per year. 

The company would control air emissions by reusing or recycling the materials; routing the emissions to a thermal oxidizer, which uses intense heat to break down the compounds; or capturing the compounds using carbon systems or other technologies.

The carbon systems containing these compounds, though, must be disposed of. They are shipped to the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill, in Emelle, Alabama. That small community is 80% Black.

Current EPA regulations don’t classify perfluorinated compounds as hazardous, but the agency recently proposed that two – PFOA and PFOS – be designated as such.

Details of new air emissions estimates must be included in the company’s application to DEQ. Chemours representatives said the company has met with the Division of Air Quality about the expansion, and plans to file for a permit modification next month.

Sharon Martin, DEQ deputy secretary for public affairs, told Policy Watch in an email that the agency has not received “specific details on potential changes to emissions or discharges.”

After Chemours files its permit application, state regulators will review it. There will also be a public comment period – and given the significant interest in the proposal – at least one public meeting about the application. There is no timetable for these steps, but it will likely take at least a year.

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Lisa Sorg
Lisa Sorg

Assistant Editor and Environmental Reporter Lisa Sorg helps manage newsroom operations while covering the environment, climate change, agriculture and energy.